Posts Tagged ‘baptism’

Children of God, beloved and special

February 17, 2018

Lent 1 – 2018

Mark 1:9-15

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who strengthens us and equips us for all the good and the bad that we might be asked to face. Amen.

Did you notice something missing from today’s gospel? You might have been expecting to hear the details of the three temptations – turning stones into bread, jumping off a cliff and worshipping Satan. These specific details of Jesus’ time in the wilderness (listed by both Luke and Matthew) are missing in Mark’s gospel. They are apparently of little consequence for Mark as he pushes on to reveal Jesus as the Son of God. Probably because Mark’s account is so stark, the lectionary writers have included Jesus’ baptism in today’s gospel. This creates an interesting juxtaposition: baptism followed by temptation, public repentance followed by private battles within, a declaration that Jesus is the Son of God, followed by Jesus being driven into the wilderness.

If we read the account of the baptism on its own without understanding the consequences it becomes a wonderful affirmation of Jesus. Though Jesus alone sees and hears, the events that accompany Jesus’ baptism are quite extraordinary. The heavens are literally torn apart, the Spirit descends as if a dove and Jesus hears the voice of God from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” It must have been both an inspiring and terrifying moment. Jesus heard God assuring him that he was doing the right thing and that his relationship with God was of the highest order, Father and Son.

Why then does the Spirit (note: not the devil) immediately drive Jesus out into the wilderness – that godless, inhospitable and unforgiving place – to be tempted by Satan and threatened by wild animals? To experience both physical and spiritual adversity? At first sight, it seems to be back-to-front. Doesn’t it make more sense that Jesus would want to repent after a time of reflection and temptation? Doesn’t make more sense for Jesus to be tested before God tears apart the heavens and sends the Spirit upon him? Doesn’t it seem that it would be more prudent for God to have been certain that Jesus was ready the task before he took the radical step of affirming him as God’s Son? I wonder, what would have happened if Jesus had failed the test? Could God take the Son thing back?

Two things help us to make sense of the order of events as they are presented. The first is the parallel between Jesus’ experience and that of Israel. Before God led the people of Israel out of Egypt into the wilderness, God declared that Israel was God’s Son. God thus affirmed the status of Israel and, through the cloud and the fiery pillar, God provided proof that God would provide for them and would never desert them. Yet, despite such assurance, Israel grumbled against God and relied on their own resources to the extent of making their own gods thus demonstrating that they had little to no faith in God’s promises.

When Jesus is declared to be God’s Son and led into the wilderness he places his trust entirely in God, he refuses to rely on his own resources or to put God to the test. As a result Jesus is able to withstand the privations of the desert and as a result is “ministered to by the angels”. Jesus did what Israel could not – he believed not that God would spare him from trouble, but that when trouble came his way he could rely on God to provide the strength to see him through.

We better understand the order of events when we remember that throughout Jesus’ ministry, he will face hostility and opposition – from demons, from the authorities, from his family and even from his disciples. Jesus’ journey, once begun, will lead only to suffering and the cross. At Jesus’ baptism then, God gives Jesus the resources that he will need for whatever lies ahead – the absolute assurance that he is God’s Son and the implied assurance that, whatever lies ahead, God will be with him. The wilderness is a sign of what is to come. Jesus begins his ministry with the endorsement of God’s love and approval ringing in his ears – an endorsement that sustains him in the wilderness and throughout the challenges and threats that dog his ministry.

At our Baptism we are told: “the promises of God are signed and sealed for us.” And we are assured of the gift of the Holy Spirit. These are not empty words, but gifts to sustain us through thick and thin. They are gifts that assure us that God will be with us every step of the way: sustaining us, encouraging us and equipping us to face whatever dangers, griefs or hardships that might come our way.

Lent, our time in the wilderness, need not be a time of self-flagellation, a time of reminding ourselves how far we fall short or a time of stressing about what we need to do to be holier or kinder, more loving or more patient. Lent can be a time of letting go, a time for reminding ourselves that we can place our trust completely in God, that we can rely on God to be there in our times of need and that we can trust God to hold us up when we feel that we can go no further.

No one can predict what life will throw at us. The question is not whether we will have wilderness experiences, but whether our confidence in God is sufficient to see us through. May this Lent be for us all a time to renew our trust in God, to make peace with the lives that we have and to believe that whatever happens God has, waiting for us, an eternity that is beyond our capacity to imagine.

Does Jesus need to be baptised??

January 7, 2017

The Baptism of Jesus – 2017

Matthew 3:13-17

Marian Free

 

In the name of God whose plan is, was and always will be to save the world.

Why does Jesus need to be baptised? Surely Jesus doesn’t need to be cleansed from sin. He doesn’t need to profess his faith. John certainly doesn’t think that Jesus needs to be baptised. It is important that we, with John ask the question? Why does Jesus need to be baptised? The problem is that it is easy for us to make assumptions based on the  idea that John’s baptism was like that which we received when in fact the two things are very different.

John’s baptism – that received by Jesus – was very different from the baptism that has grown up in the practice of the church. John was calling the people of Israel to repentance.  Baptism (the greek word simply means “wash”) was a sign that they were turning their backs on the way that had been living and were returning to God. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. It was not intended for individuals but for all of Israel. John was calling for the renewal of the Jewish people nation. He was NOT calling for people to repent of their own individual sins. John the Baptist was preparing the people as a whole for the coming of a Redeemer.

Baptism in the name of Jesus is, at the very least a post-resurrection event. It is form of initiation and a statement of faith. John’s baptism is not and cannot have been a baptism into the Christian faith.  Jesus had not even begun his public ministry and Jesus was, and remained a Jew.

What all this means is that when we consider Jesus’ baptism we have to see it as a stand-alone event and not as something that foreshadows the practice and doctrine of the Christian church. The baptism of Jesus is not baptism in the way that we think of baptism, but something entirely different.

All the gospel writers record this event, so we can state with some confidence that it has a basis in historical fact. Jesus was baptised and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove descended on him. Matthew, Mark and Luke all report a voice coming from heaven (or from a cloud) that affirmed Jesus as God’s Son and indicated God’s pleasure in God’s son.

Of the accounts of Jesus’ baptism, Matthew’s is the longest. This is because he alone records John’s reluctance to baptise Jesus. “I need to be baptised by you and do you come to me?” he asks. John recognised that Jesus is the more powerful than he.  John thinks that Jesus should baptise him, not vice versa. Matthew apparently agrees with John that Jesus does not need to be baptised, so in order to understand what is happening, we have to examine how Matthew explains Jesus’ baptism.

According to Warren Carter we need to pay attention to four things in order to understand Matthew’s understood if we pay attention to four things: the context, John’s baptism, the conversation between John and Jesus and the voice from heaven[1].

The account of Jesus’ baptism occurs part way through chapter three in Matthew’s gospel. Jesus’ ministry is yet to begin. In fact it will not begin until mid-way through chapter four (after the temptations). Matthew has been setting the scene. Jesus’ baptism is one of the way in which Matthew establishes Jesus’ identity and demonstrates the way in which Jesus is a fulfilment of God’s promises. Matthew begins by establishing Jesus’ identity and the ways in which his early life is a fulfilment of scripture. Jesus is of the line of David, conceived by the Spirit to save the people from their sins. He is Emmanuel, “God with us”. His life is in danger because he is a threat to Herod. The leaders in Jerusalem ignore his birth and yet he is recognised and worshipped by foreigners. Through Joseph, God ensures that he is kept safe from harm and finally John the Baptist prepares the people for his coming.

Matthew has made is clear that Jesus has been sent by God. His baptism by John demonstrates that Jesus both understands and accepts his role and that he intends to be obedient to God’s plan for his life.

Only Matthew records the conversation between Jesus and John – John’s initial reluctance and Jesus’ insistence. Remember that John ‘s baptism is not about individuals, but about the nation of Israel. Jesus’ sinlessness is not in question, it is Jesus’ role as the “one who is more powerful” that causes John some anxiety.  Jesus’ response is mysterious. All it really tells us is that Jesus’ submission to John’s baptism is part of God’s plan for putting everything right – the plan that John has been announcing to the world. Just as other events in Jesus’ life so far have been to “fulfil” God’s plan, so too will Jesus’ baptism. It does not make immediate sense, just as Jesus’ death will not make sense. What is important for Matthew’s story is that God has a plan and that Jesus is determined to submit to that plan, to accept his commission from God.

After Jesus has convinced John that his baptism is not only right, but also divinely sanctioned John baptises Jesus. Then, as Jesus emerges from the water, God affirms both Jesus’ identity and his mission by opening the heavens, descending as a dove and declaring Jesus to be his son, the Beloved, with whom God is well pleased.

Through genealogy and story, affirmation and fear, Matthew has established Jesus as the one of David’s line who will fulfil God’s promise to bring salvation to Israel. Now that he has made it absolutely clear who and what Jesus is, Matthew can begin his record of Jesus’ teaching, teaching that he has proven can be heard and received with absolute confidence. Those who hear and those who read Matthew’s gospel know exactly who Jesus is, by whom he has been commissioned, and what role he is to play in the history of Israel.

As we travel together through the gospel according to Matthew this, we can be sure of this that Matthew believes that: Jesus has been sent by God, to fulfil God’s promises and to carry out God’s plan. What we read and hear can be trusted because it comes from God..

 

 

 

 

[1] For the original see http://workingpreacher.org

A gift of love

January 11, 2014

Baptism of our Lord – 2013

Matthew 3:13-17

Marian Free 

In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.

 Last Sunday I attended a friend’s annual Epiphany party. In the course of the afternoon one of the guests began a discussion about godparents and in particular when the practice of having godparents began. Frankly, I had no idea. I thought that it was probably a late development as, up until the fourth century and even later, whole families, if not whole tribes, were baptised at the same time. It was an all or nothing situation, the head of the family or the king would be converted and the family and the tribe had no choice but to go along. There was no need for anyone to make promises for the children who would have had no say, then or in the future, as to whether they were Christian or not. As they grew up, it would simply have been a part of their identity. They would have absorbed by osmosis what it meant and their own children would have likewise been brought up in the faith of those around them

 An examination of that great source of wisdom and knowledge – the internet – revealed that I was wrong. Apparently, the equivalent of godparents came into being as early as the second century when parents made the confession of faith on the part of their child and were charged with their children’s spiritual upbringing. St Augustine allowed for exceptions to that practice, but apparently within a hundred years the exception had become the rule – parents were no longer allowed to sponsor their children for baptism.  However the relationship of a godparent  to the child was considered as close as that of a parent. This can be seen in the practice from the fifth century when baptismal sponsors were called “commaters” and “compaters” – co parents whose relationship to the child was considered sufficiently close that they were forbidden from marrying them.

Until recently, most children in this country were baptised. There was an assumption that this was a Christian country and that even those who rarely attended church were Christians and that their children should be formally identified as such. For some, there lay behind this practice a belief that a child who was not baptised would go to purgatory or to hell, but for many baptism was simply part of the culture of the day. Fear is no longer a driving force and in our time a great many people who no longer have any connection to the church, or who do not profess the faith, have come to the conclusion that baptism is at best unnecessary and at worst hypocritical.

The church has also undergone a change. Far from wanting to rescue so many innocents from the clutches of the devil, the church has had conversation after conversation about the practice of infant baptism and whether or not children of non-practicing families should be baptised. Some churches, including some Anglican congregations insist that parents attend church for a minimum number of weeks and attend classes before their child is accepted for baptism. The purpose of this is to ensure that the parents take their commitment seriously and that they will have some knowledge of the faith that they will claim to profess. Sadly this practice has led to a feeling of rejection and alienation among those who have felt that their good intentions were rejected when they were genuinely trying to do the right thing by their child.

Baptism as a form of initiation appears to be a Christian innovation. There is no evidence of a practice of baptism in Judaism. Purity laws meant that believers regularly had ritual baths to purify  themselves, but there is little to suggest that converts to the faith were washed or baptised. The Greek word Βαπτίζω simply means to wash. Jews washed away their impurities, but did not extend this practice to include the initiation of new believers.  John the Baptist appears to have taken the practice of ritual cleansing to a new level –  the idea of washing away sins and renewing of one’s relationship with God was unique to him.

Jesus’ baptism by John was controversial for at least two reasons. It was impossible for the Gospel writers to believe that Jesus had any sins to be washed away and it was equally impossible to imagine that John’s stature was such that it would warrant his baptizing Jesus. For both these reasons Jesus’ baptism seems to have been a cause of embarrassment for the authors of Matthew and John. Matthew tries to explain Jesus’ baptism away telling us that the Baptist insisted that Jesus should baptise him, to which Jesus responds that it is “proper for us to fulfill all righteousness”. John’s gospel does not mention Jesus’ baptism at all. However it clear that Jesus did seek and did receive baptism from John.

It is probably because Jesus himself was baptised that the early church adopted the practice as its form of initiation even though Jesus himself baptised no one. We have only a few New Testament references to baptism. Some scholars believe that Gal 3:28 is a baptism formula: “In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female” and Romans 6 uses the language of dying and rising with Christ. We heard in today’s reading from the Book of Acts that water was important for baptism – even though those who heard the message had already been filled with the Holy Spirit.

It is in the Didache (a second century document) that we find the first instructions for Baptism. The Didache tells us that we should baptise in this way. “After explaining all things you should baptise them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. If you cannot do it in flowing water then do it in cold water, if not in cold then warm. If you have very little water pour it on the head three times in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Before the baptism both the baptizer and the candidate for baptism, plus any others who can, should fast. The candidate should fast for one or two days beforehand.” (The practice of fasting during Lent is an extension of this practice. The whole community would fast in preparation for the baptisms that were to take place at Easter.)

I’m not sure how many people fast before a baptism these days. Certainly, even for those encouraged to attend church for six weeks, the preparation is a far cry from the days when a candidate would spend four years learning the faith before they were accepted for baptism.

Over the centuries, the details of baptism services have differed, but the intent remains the same. Through baptism an individual, or godparents on behalf of that individual, declare an allegiance to the Christian faith and in so doing recognise and accept the place of God in their lives. In this overtly materialist world, those who bring their children for baptism acknowledge that the material world has its limitations and they express a desire to expose their child to the world beyond this world, to give their child an opportunity to see that there is more to life than what can be seen and felt and touched. The children whom we welcome into our faith community are already loved by God. In baptism we acknowledge God’s love for them and formalize their entitlement to that love. We recognise that everyone is loved by God and is a child of God.

Of course, that is only the beginning.  Jesus’ baptism signaled the beginning of his ministry. So too for us – our baptism is a gift that shows its true potential only when we set it free to act in and on us. Baptism is a gift of love that is activated most fully when we respond to that love. If we allow it, if we set it free, God’s love will empower and direct our lives, it will fill us with joy and it will activate our compassion and desire for justice and peace. Knowing our place in the spiritual realm will enable us to sit lightly with this world – not to be tossed about and driven by desire for material possessions, status and wealth.  Conscience of God’s presence always with us, we will face every difficulty with courage and every set back with grace. Having been affirmed as a child of God, we will strive to be worthy of that privilege.

Let our beginning not be our ending. May we, the baptised, give God the freedom to renew and transform us, so that we may become more truly ourselves – set free to love and be loved and to make God’s presence known to all around us.


 [1]

Uncomfortable people – terrorists or saviours, threat or promise?

December 7, 2013

Advent 2 – 2013

Matthew 3:1-12

Marian Free

 In the name of God who is not always comfortable and benign and whose prophets are sometimes harsh and uncompromising. Amen. 

Over the past two days our airways and our print media have eulogised Nelson Mandela and rightly so. His was an extraordinary life and he belongs with the great men and women of history. That said, not everyone shares that view. When we were in Cape Town a few years ago our tour guide expressed disgust that “that terrorist” was regarded as a hero. In Fact, for most of Mandela’s early political life he was considered a revolutionary and a troublemaker. He was a leader of a banned organisation that incited people to revolt against the government. People in South Africa and abroad were divided in their opinions of him and of his means of achieving his goal. For many, he was a respected figure, working for a just cause, but for those who supported apartheid he was considered a dangerous activist who was determined to bring down a legitimate government.

In his autobiography: A Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela takes full responsibility for the decision of the African National Congress to use violence in the struggle against apartheid and when the Government invited the ANC to the negotiating table Mandela refused to lay down arms as a pre-condition for the talks.  He was anything but a comfortable man.

I raise these issues to remind you that it is not always easy to make wise judgements about uncomfortable people – especially when they challenge our complacency, confront our values or threaten the stability of our way of life.  Sometimes it is only with the benefit of hindsight that we understand how easily we are deceived. Hitler – an upholder of law and order – turned out to be a monster. Mandela – a law-breaker – turned out to be a nation’s “greatest son, father of the people.” (Jacob Zuma)

John the Baptist was an uncomfortable and uncompromising person. Despite that people flocked to him from miles around. No doubt he unsettled both the religious and political leaders of his day. Those in authority are suspicious of people who can draw a crowd and nervous about the level of their influence they can exert.

Perhaps this is why the Pharisees and Sadducees ventured into the wilderness to see John and ostensibly to be baptised by him. These unlikely partners in crime would be curious to see what John was doing and teaching. Perhaps they thought they could learn something from him, in particular how they could gain the support of the people. Alternately, they might have been seeking information that they could use in order to discredit him and to regain the deference of the people. Whatever their reasons, it is clear that John saw right through them. He did not believe that they had come to repent or to learn from him. He accused them of shallowness and of duplicity. “You offspring of vipers,” he says. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

For John, it is not enough that they came out into the desert. Nor is it enough that they sought baptism. He was aware that if the Pharisees and Sadducees were not prepared to radically change their lives their baptism would have achieved nothing. Their feigned respect for John the Baptist was meaningless if they had not responded to his message and allowed their lives to be transformed as a result. John was confident that they could no rely on their heritage or their position, only a change of heart would ensure that they retained the privilege of being children of Abraham.

It is easy to be like the Pharisees and Sadducees and to live our lives on the surface, relying on our respectability and our superficial goodness. We can stand at a distance and admire and respect the John the Baptists of the past and the Nelson Mandelas of our time. However to dive into the depths of our being and to root out all that is ugly is a much more challenging and unwelcome task. Not many of us have the nerve to abandon our comfort zones and to allow ourselves to be radically changed. It takes courage to look deep into our souls and it takes a great deal of moral fibre to go against the flow, to associate with uncomfortable and challenging people and, with them, to stand up and be counted.

We do not honour Nelson Mandela by filling our Facebook pages with quotations and photos or by speaking in hushed and reverent voices about his achievements and his legacy. The best accolade that we can give him is to endeavour from this day on to recognise and to confront injustice; to rid our hearts of all bitterness and resentment; and to pray for the wisdom to discern when a person who makes us uncomfortable is a threat or a promise.

John the Baptist issued both threat and promise. He challenged the establishment and promised the coming of one even greater. He announced the judgement of God and provided a means to escape it. He saw through the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and Sadducees and honoured the openness of the people and their willingness to change.

If we do not wish to be censured, if we are sure that we are not the offspring of vipers, it is important that we hear John’s accusations, that we examine our motives for what we do and do not do, that we do not seek to protect what we have but to do what is right. Only an openness of heart, a self-critical attitude and a true understanding of the righteousness of God will help us to know right from wrong, good from bad, hero from terrorist. May God give us discernment, clarity of purpose and an openness of heart and mind, so that we might recognise the prophets among us, respond to their challenge and with them prepare for the coming of our God.


[1] Jacob Zuma commenting on Mandela’s death.


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